Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


6 leaky tanks ooze radioactive waste at Hanford nuclear site in Washington

Hanford Nuclear Reservation, in south-central Washington, is America's most contaminated nuclear site. Six underground tanks holding highly radioactive waste are leaking and must be emptied. 

By Shannon DininnyAssociated Press / February 23, 2013

Then-Gov. Chris Gregoire makes her way down a set of stairs at the Hanford Vitrification Plant in Richland, Wash., in September 2012. Six underground radioactive waste tanks at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site are leaking, Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday. Inslee called the latest news "disturbing."

Richard Dickin/The Tri-City Herald/AP/File

Enlarge

Yakima, Wash.

Federal and state officials say six underground tanks holding a brew of radioactive and toxic waste are leaking at the country's most contaminated nuclear site in south-central Washington, raising concerns about delays for emptying the aging tanks.

Skip to next paragraph

The leaking materials at Hanford Nuclear Reservation pose no immediate risk to public safety or the environment because it would take perhaps years for the chemicals to reach groundwater, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday.

But the news has renewed discussion over delays for emptying the tanks, which were installed decades ago and are long past their intended 20-year life span.

"None of these tanks would be acceptable for use today. They are all beyond their design life. None of them should be in service," said Tom Carpenter of HanfordChallenge, a Hanford watchdog group. "And yet, they're holding two-thirds of the nation's high-level nuclear waste."

Just last week, state officials announced that one of Hanford's 177 tanks was leaking 150 to 300 gallons a year, posing a risk to groundwater and rivers. So far, nearby monitoring wells haven't detected higher radioactivity levels.

Inslee then traveled to Washington, D.C., to discuss the problem with federal officials, learning in meetings Friday that six tanks are leaking.

The declining waste levels in the six tanks were missed because only a narrow band of measurements was evaluated, rather than a wider band that would have shown the levels changing over time, Inslee said.

"It's like if you're trying to determine if climate change is happening, only looking at the data for today," he said. "Perhaps human error, the protocol did not call for it. But that's not the most important thing at the moment. The important thing now is to find and address the leakers."

Department of Energy spokeswoman Lindsey Geisler said there was no immediate health risk and that federal officials would work with Washington state to address the matter.

Regardless, Sen. Ron Wyden, the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, will ask the Government Accountability Office to investigateHanford's tank monitoring and maintenance program, said his spokesman, Tom Towslee.

The federal government built the Hanford facility at the height of World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. The remote site produced plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, and continued supporting the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal for years.

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer

 

Editors' picks